Cancelled Easter

The year they cancelled Easter.  Well, not exactly.  Perhaps I’m merely a product of the commercialization of my time, but my thoughts go back to the Grinch.  “It came without boxes,” he said, “it came without bags” (and any more might be copyright infringement).  You get the point—holidays aren’t reliant upon their trappings.  Can Easter come without colorful eggs?  Without baskets and bonnets?  Without Peeps and chocolates?  Yes, it can.  We’ve taken another holiday with religious origins and associated it with what you can buy.  I know it’s more than that for some people.  It’s singing stirring hymns (all of which can be found on YouTube), and dressing nice (which can still be  done at home), but mainly I think it’s the sense of togetherness that’s missing.  The freedom of bursting from our personal tombs in which we’ve been stuck for three weeks.

Around here snow was falling on Good Friday.  A friend told me her company decided since everyone was working remotely they would give them an extra holiday that day.  Others of us slogged on as usual, for unlike Christmas, the Easter/Passover complex is not about getting days off work.  These are, I guess, working class holidays.  Our capitalistic outlook wants us to spend money, though, on holidays.  Halloween (on which I foresee a plethora of plague doctor costumes) has become almost as lucrative as Christmas.  The spring holidays—St. Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s, and Easter—encourage spending as well.  Can we not get to the heart of a holiday without pulling out our wallets?  Spring holidays are all about the return of life after winter.  It was snowing, but I could hear lawnmowers in the distance.

With capitalism growing old and sluggish, the next spending holiday isn’t until Mother’s Day, yet another spring celebration associated with flowers and life.  My wife has been saying that what she misses is being out to see things coming back to life in spring.  Some of the trees are putting on quite a show already.  Magnolias and dogwoods have started to scatter their petals with the snowflakes.  Our daffodils have been blooming since March.  The forsythias are already going green.  Life is returning.  That’s what Easter, and in its own way Passover, is all about.  Life after imprisonment—freedom.  Liberation.  We have to put them off this year, but they’re all movable feasts.  We keep quietly apart in the hopes that life really will return after disease and death.  And it will come regardless.  It always does.

Bunny or No?

Since we’re in the midst of a smaller holiday season (capitalistic societies can only get away with one major holiday season because the workers must work) many people are wondering whether they should go to church for Easter tomorrow.  I’ll confess I woke up from a nightmare this morning where I accidentally forgot about COVID-19 and went to church.  I stepped inside and the building was full.  I tried to find an empty pew to socially distance myself from all but the Divine, and there was no room.  I felt infected as others started to cough around me.  In real life I’d just read from the World Health Organization’s situation report (number 80, located here, in case you want to see) that we’ve just reached day 100 since WHO received its first notification of this new disease.  The report has guidance for those who feel compelled to gather for religious services.  It makes for very interesting reading.

WHO, like certain political parties, knows that people will listen to their religious leaders rather than reason.  (And still our universities cut positions in their religion departments since, apparently, it is best not to know about such things.)  Recognizing that a secular, science-based organization simply can’t compete, WHO urges religious leaders to spread the word about evidence-based responses to the outbreak.  Don’t gather large Easter-day crowds (they also mention Passover and Ramadan), but, interestingly, do keep the services going.  WHO recognizes the psychological (you can’t say “spiritual”) value of religious belief.  It gives people hope and comfort.  It keeps them going in difficult times.  Call it mental health, but the World Health Organization has wellbeing right there in its title.

Photo credit: ItsLassieTime, via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, the same day I saw an email from the other acronym in my life, SBL (the Society of Biblical Literature).  They were releasing their annual report showing the dismal job market figures for the discipline over the last year.  These jobs are fading and although WHO recognizes billions of people are motivated by religion our smartest institutions are shifting their money away from understanding it.  The COVID-19 outbreak puts us in this strange place where disjunctures become focal points.  If you look at a field of uniform gray long enough you’ll stop seeing anything at all.  You need contrast for vision to work.  WHO recognizes that religious observance constitutes a major challenge for the effort to keep people isolated.  Universities now in isolation, continue to see no reason to study this.  I’m waiting to awake from this nightmare.

Holiday Complex

Now that we’re in the midst of a complex of Judeo-Christian holidays (Passover, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, as well as other spring rites), I’ve been thinking of obligations.  I’ve had people introduce themselves to me as “Chri-easters.”  This isn’t a new form of religion, but rather a way of indicating that they attend services on Christmas and Easter only.  For others of us it’s never been so easy.  I was raised with the stern belief that Sundays in church were a matter of absolute obligation.  Serious illness was the only reason to miss.  If you were traveling (which was rare for us, being not terribly affluent), you found a local church to attend.  Never mind that you’ll look like strangers and won’t know how it’s done (unless you’re in one of the “liturgical” denominations, where variations are minimal).  Every Sunday was an obligation.

The minister at our church has been offering virtual holy week services.  The idea haunts me.  You see, back in Nashotah House days the sternness of days of obligation was palpable.  Yes, you had to attend chapel twice daily, but there were still days of obligation.  At this time of year we’d have had long rehearsals already for “the Great Three Days.”  Forsaking family and fellowship, we’d be forced to be together for long hours while the dreary events of two millennia ago were replayed.  Of course they were reinterpreted as well.  Made more Episcopalian—even a crucifixion should be done properly and in good order.  Knowing they had to get to their own churches on Sunday, students were kept up until about two a.m. for the Great Vigil and First Mass of Easter.  Obligation, not love, drove all this.

Coronavirus has us separated, of course.  Some of us are daily seeking coping techniques to help us get through a crisis that throws off schedules and sets new priorities.  To have someone suggest in the midst of all this that we could “come to church” (virtually) transports me to those fearful days of obligation.  As a teen I sought them out.  I’d ask to be driven to a different town on Good Friday so that I could spend it in church, hoping to be in connection with the tragic events.  I’d curse the sunshine when I stepped back out after three p.m., if it was shining.  This was supposed to be a dark and dreary day.  Nature, however, had its own ideas.  Spring was in full swing.  It was time to be thinking about life, not death.

Rise Again

Resurrection, as I argue elsewhere, is a scary thing.  Since today’s Easter, at least in the western Christian world, people are—or should be—thinking about resurrection.  In the case of Jesus, a young man who died “before his time,” resurrection seems only fair.  Indeed, in the earliest biblical hints of the concept it applied to people in precisely that category.  The story’s different for older folk who are beginning to wear out and are ready to go to a better place.  Christianity made the idea of resurrection more palatable by stating that you get a new and better body next time around.  The creeds say, after all, “the resurrection of the body.”  Heaven, it seems, is an embodied location.  Resurrection is necessary to get there.

Horror writers and film makers have used revenants to great effect.  When they do, pop culture latches on.  Think about the vampire craze of the early 2000s.  Or the ongoing fascination with zombies.  Even your basic garden-variety ghost.  They’re all revenants that attract and repel us.  We’re not quite sure what to make of life after death.  It’s okay if it’s played out beyond human senses, but as much as we want life to go on we don’t want to witness it here.  Horror films like to play on this ambiguity.  They’re closely related to religious ideas.  I’m occasionally asked why I watch horror; it’s essentially the same question as why I study religion.  Sometimes you just need to look closely enough to find the connection.  Resurrection, as I discuss in Holy Horror, is tied to some of humanity’s most basic fears.

Just two days prior to Easter, Good Friday in fact, Lorraine Warren passed away.  A fervent believer in resurrection, she was half of the dynamic paranormal investigating couple of Ed and Lorraine, about whom I’ve posted from time to time.  This coincidental occurrence illustrates once again the connection between resurrection and horror.  The Warrens were fond of declaring that haunting spirits of the human kind were those that had not passed over into the next world.  Revenants were confused spirits (not to be mistaken as demons, which were something completely different).  Resurrection, presumably, awaits just the other side of the veil.  Clearly religion shares this roadmap with horror.  Just as the Warrens will be resurrected as characters in this summer’s forthcoming Annabelle Comes Home, such returns to life may take many forms.  It’s Easter for some of us, and it can integrate horror and hope, if viewed a particular, perhaps peculiar, way.

Discriminating Tests

That explains it.  That glow coming through the window as I got out of bed this morning is the full moon.  Since this is the first full moon after the vernal equinox, that means Sunday’s Easter.  If Sunday’s Easter this is Good Friday.  That brought to mind an article my wife sent me from The Atlantic, “Most American Christians Believe They’re Victims of Discrimination.”  In this piece Emma Green explains that Christians of a certain stripe believe they’re under threat.  Most people express surprise at this outlook, but having grown up in a Fundamentalist tradition I can say that this is hardly new.  The narrative of persecution among conservative Christians has been around for a long time.  They have a mandate, you see.  A mandate to make the entire world like themselves.

Hearing the many cries of legitimate oppression doesn’t help, of course.  In this linked world of instant communication and news 24/7, we’ve become perhaps too aware of just how widespread oppression is.  Christians have felt persecuted from the very beginning, and they don’t like now being cast in the role of oppressor.  Forcing other people to conform is no longer considered right or desirable, but Christians have a mandate.  What strikes me as odd here is that we have a means of learning about this—of arming ourselves with knowledge—but we’d rather be surprised at the polls and pay for it with years of actual oppression.  What is this mysterious means of knowing?  The Bible.  If read, this viewpoint can be understood.  And if handled carefully, disarmed.

The Roman Empire, after which, tellingly, American politics is modeled, oppressed Christians.  At least for a while.  Then the faith became establishment.  And it began oppressing.  An ocean away, Christians fled here because they wanted freedom of religion.  They didn’t always want to share that freedom with other groups experiencing discrimination.  Especially, of course, if they could be compelled to do heavy labor without pay.  Now these groups feel they’re being judged for saying “Merry Christmas,” or for declaring loudly that Sunday’s Easter.  They can’t point to behaviors that in their understanding of the Bible are bad and tell people not to do them.  They don’t understand that Allah is the same deity they worship, only in monotheistic form.  And they get all this news while the moon is still in the sky.  I look at the puddle of light on my bedroom floor and head for my writing nook.  It may be Good Friday, but I’ve got to work today, getting Bibles ready to sell.

Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.

Two Cities

Augustine of Hippo wrote that there were two cities. If you’re reading this blog you probably know what they are. Today, according to some, is Easter. For others it’s not quite there yet. Call that one city. It’s also very near that other national holiday—tax day. That’d definitely be the other city. Now, I’m not going to go into any detail here, but I’ve always done my own taxes. If you’re old enough to remember going to the public library to pick up two or three copies of the paper forms, sitting at home with a pencil, eraser, pen, and TI-30, and spending an entire Saturday reading through the instructions and scribbling, you know what I’m talking about. These days everything’s online.

I can’t recall how many years I’ve used TurboTax. It was free, easy, and generally led to a refund. I miss those days. This year when I sat down with Intuit’s child, it started asking questions I didn’t understand. Perhaps you’ve run into some industries that do this—they make up their own vocabulary and if they use the words in a way the dictionary doesn’t, well, it’s the dictionary’s fault for not keeping up. TurboTax started doing that. And unless you want to pay even more than they’ve already sold you up for, there’s no way to ask questions. The answers online use the same obscure lexicon. So this year I had to do probably the most adult thing I’ve ever done. I got an accountant.

Setting up the appointment for after work, it was a matter of looking at dates both my wife and I, and more importantly, the accountant, had free. It was only as judgment day dawned that I realized it was Good Friday (for some). Arranging to work from home that day so I could get to the office before the buses rumble out of New York, I ran into a traffic jam. No doubt people out to do their last minute Good Friday shopping. We were meeting the accountant for the first time, and I wanted to make a good impression. Be punctual. I had neglected to coordinate the two cities on my calendar. The accountant was understanding. He commented on how easy our taxes were, compared to many. Turns out TurboTax had been closing off many perfectly legal options and charging us for the privilege. So now it’s Easter. Taxes are due in a couple of weeks. There are two cities, and if either is neglected there’ll be Hell to pay in the end.

Lent Presidents

Surely it’s appropriate that President’s Day falls in Lent this year. We as a nation, if we are wise, will repent of the horror we’ve elected upon ourselves. Those ashes on our foreheads remind us that sins come on a national scale as well as an individual. Any nation touting supremacy is in need of Lent, even if it’s founder’s day. Especially if it’s founder’s day. It’s difficult to believe that either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would’ve truly thought the United States better than other nations. Having a secure and free place to live wasn’t an exercise in supremacy, but in the belief that people should be able to govern themselves. An Easter, if you will, of beliefs.

Symbolism is a major part of any religious holiday. The eggs, rabbits, and butterflies of Easter all represent something just as the burnt palms from last year’s Palm Sunday do. George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree—that was a story made up many years later. It was, however, a symbol to represent a truth. To represent a president who couldn’t bring himself to lie. The fact-checking statistics show that the current incumbent of Washington’s chair lies over five times a day. Listen closely here, for this is symbolism—yes, he did chop down the cherry tree. Where do you think those ashes on your forehead have come from?

An administration where supremacy is daily in the news is surely a sign of trouble. This President’s Day a national S.O.S. goes out, but to whom can supremacists call for help? They are already the greatest in their own minds. Supremacy was the hubris of Rome that eventually ensured its fall. The belief that the Roman male was the most supreme human template possible—far above women, slaves, and foreigners—was held until the day the Vandals and Visigoths came to the door. Preoccupied with its own greatness, it was an empire unable to see the symbolism clearly on display all around it. By that point it had become a “Christian nation”—a state with God’s own blessing on its white males and their entitlements. The insanity borne of excessive pride was no stranger to the seat of the emperor. Less than fourteen-hundred years later a new government would form. It’s leader so full of integrity and dignity that the common person believed he couldn’t cut down a cherry tree without telling the truth. And this year his birthday falls in Lent.

Come Together

Although today is Easter for some, for many it generally isn’t. And I don’t mean just those who follow faiths outside Christianity. One of the hallmarks of religions is their tendency to fragment like a sugar egg under Thor’s hammer. Christians have long disagreed on the date of Easter depending on which time reckoning scheme they follow. That which makes it onto most work calendars is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox after the Gregorian calendar. After all those afters it’s easy to get confused, but the fact is this kind of precision makes it possible to date Easter until the Earth slows on its axis or Mitch McConnell learns to look at things from someone else’s point-of-view, although we all know which is more likely. This year, in a rare coincidence of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, however, Orthodox Easter is the same as Catholic Easter. Could it be sign of hope?

You see, calendars aren’t just markers of time. They’ve always been religious devices. In fact, our current calendar, the Gregorian, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. The world still marches to the beat of Rome’s drum. Nature, it seems, is indifferent to our calendrical needs. The point of all this time keeping was to help those who lived by the soil to know when to plant and when to harvest. That might seem simplistic, but if you follow how it feels outside there would’ve been some sowing going on in February around here. Global warming, for those who’ve advanced to the Gregorian calendar (that’s okay Mr. McConnell, you may leave the room) will throw that off, and maybe we’ll be needing a new calendar. Will we retain the one with it’s pagan month names or shall we adopt one with months of evangelical heroes? But wait, not all evangelical groups celebrate Easter!

I had a college roommate who believed all holidays were of the Devil. His sect of Christianity didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. So even as Orthodox and Heterodox join together in recognizing today as Easter, not everyone’s together on that point. Some mythologize bunnies and eggs while others dismiss them as hopelessly pagan. So it is that we have to agree to disagree. Teach the controversy, right Mitch? While some celebrate resurrection today others put their Peeps in the microwave just for the fun of having that kind of power over the weak.

Having your cake, and having it too.

Death Challenged

Long before the Walking Dead, and even before Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, people took the undead seriously. Now, I know ratings are important (they attract advertisers and their money, after all), but when the fear is reality the stakes are upped a bit. Two readers sent me a Guardian story this past week of Yorkshire villagers mutilating the dead. In the Middle Ages, that is—it’s perfectly safe to die in Yorkshire now. The story by Maev Kennedy describes how archaeologists have been studying deliberately defiled corpses, well, actually the bones from those corpses to be precise, to solve a centuries-old mystery. Their conclusion? Medieval folk really did fear the dead coming back from the grave.

Now, Easter’s just around the corner and resurrection’s on a lot of minds. Outside the context of the Bible, however, resurrection of the dead is one of the most ancient and persistent of human fears. Nobody’s quite sure why. Dreams and visions of the recently departed are extremely common. Belief in ghosts is ancient and fairly universal. The destruction of the bodies of people already dead is not. We treat our gathered ones with respect. To me it seems to come down to the puzzle of consciousness. Call it a soul if you like, but I have a feeling things would be getting rather crowded in here if too many distinct entities claimed this body as home. Mind, soul, spirit, psyche, consciousness. We don’t know what it is because it can’t be studied empirically. We know that something like it exists and opinions of what happens to it after death vary. The body, we can all agree, has a more prosaic end.

That’s what makes fear of the undead so fascinating. They are only bodies. Bodies without souls. Rather like leaders of the Republican Party. We fear them because when we look into their unblinking eyes we see no vestige of human warmth or sympathy. Those who walk among us and who don’t care about those of us not yet undead remain a perennial fear. In the case of the Yorkshire corpses these were people already buried. Putting them back in their graves seemed kind of pointless when they would only climb out again. We don’t know what it was like on the ground in the Middle Ages. History, however, has an ironic way of repeating itself. We’re entering a new age when I suspect we’ll want to make sure the remains of some remain well and truly gone once they’ve finally given up the ghost.

Underground Easter

SleepyHollow

Recently I had the opportunity to write a post for the OUP Blog on the topic of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not exactly obsessed with the program, but it fascinates me that a television show that is so religiously based was such a hit for a couple of seasons. Religiously based, that is, in a thoroughly secular way. That may sound like a contradiction, but that is precisely part of the charm. We are constantly being informed that religion is on its way out, but we keep coming back to it in other guises. Sometimes disguises. Since today is recognized as Easter among many western Christian groups, I thought it’d be appropriate to consider resurrection. We know that resurrection is an idea that pre-dates Christianity and that it is one of the most basic religious hopes people share, in some form or other. It is also one of the central themes of Sleepy Hollow.

The premise of the series is that Ichabod Crane has been resurrected two centuries after his death. Alive in Sleepy Hollow, he and Abbie Mills fight off a variety of weekly frightening monsters, the primary one being the Headless Horseman. But the Headless Horseman is also a resurrected character. Ironically, he is Death, and even Death comes back from beyond. As particularly the first season goes on, we find other characters dead and risen. George Washington comes back from the dead to give instructions for coming out of Purgatory. The second horseman of the apocalypse, War, is a character brought back from the dead. In the second season, Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of futuristic sense, is brought back from the dead as a kind of living hologram. Where, o Death, is thy sting?

Sleepy Hollow is a secular program. There is no overt religious message. To tell a compelling story, however, the writers keep coming back to the Bible and other sacred texts, and supernatural themes. In researching the program I learned that other networks (who has time to keep track of them all?) also have supernatural features and that competition is fierce. Meanwhile we’re being told that religion is all but stomped out under the weight of rationalism. My observation is that it may be dressed up as something different. It may even be in disguise. Religion, however, is experiencing its own resurrection in popular culture and the idea of Easter has yet to be considered obsolete.

GF or TGIF?

For some today is Good Friday. Others are saying “TGIF!” There’s a basic disconnect that has grown between days of remembrance (okay, let’s just call them “holidays”) and the days required of capitalism. Easter is not generally considered a work holiday. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, coming on a Sunday, it is safely out of the reach of much commercialism. Although, vis-à-vis Christianity, it’s a stronger holiday than Christmas, it isn’t a federal holiday. In a world of religious pluralism, that’s no doubt correct. Still, for those who ponder deeply the tradition that wrought them, shouldn’t we be allowed to contemplate our loss without spending a vacation day?

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I often think about the ministry as a vocation. After all, I paid my good money and attended seminary. When I was teaching at a seminary and there was some pressure to move that direction, however, I felt that I was adequately served by daily masses and the opportunity to minister in the classroom. Before those days, however, I trudged into work in Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Good Friday wearing black and feeling depressed. From long habit I wished to be in church. From financial necessity I stood behind the counter and smiled. Good Friday is that way. It’s hardly a holiday when loss lies all around. It’s a bleak day, one might say. Few bosses who don’t feel the depth of symbolism can quite understand. Work week interruptus.

No doubt it’s vain of me to try to encapsulate this into words. As a culture we prefer the bright, sunny colors of Easter—a holiday with considerable spending but without loss of work efficiency. We should be smiles all around. “Smiles, everyone! Welcome to Fantasy Island!” But we can’t get there without going through Good Friday. Meanwhile, those who don’t observe the day are glad that it’s Friday. Not exactly a holiday weekend, but a weekend nonetheless. Have we outgrown Good Friday? I should think not. For although we bring our cheery flowers and bonnets out for all to see, we all know that Monday is just another day at work.

Elihu_Vedder_-_Soul_in_Bondage_-_Google_Art_Project

Spring Forward

I have to admit that spring snuck up on me this year. Weather is, of course, no reliable predictor of the Vernal Equinox, and since I depend on the lightness of the sky while waiting for the bus as an indicator of seasons, turning our clocks ahead last weekend blindsided me to the nearness of the light. Holy Week in Christianity is just one of a cluster of holy days long associated with the point of equilibrium: the day when light and darkness balance perfectly, only to tip from then on in the favor of light. The crocuses have been up for weeks and the robins are ubiquitous, so I really have no excuse. Spending too much of one’s days indoors, I suspect, will inure any soul to the wonder of changing seasons. Climate control, no windows, and constant business separate a person from what nature has evolved us to be.

Easter, understandably, can’t be a national holiday in a land of religious freedom. Not everyone recognizes Easter and even those who do don’t agree on the date. Having a moveable feast is a great inconvenience to employers who want to know everyone’s going to be at their desks. Besides, even though the date changes, it’s always on a Sunday. Many people already have that sop and so, we glide past the vernal equinox with nary a thought. Business as usual. Looking at the great monuments of the past, when ancients put great effort into marking the seasonal change days, I can’t help but think that we’ve lost touch with a basic element of our humanity when we let the equinoxes pass without notice. I hadn’t even realized it was spring until it had begun.

Stopping to recognize the significant days in the passing of the year may be inherently religious. We can be as secular as we like about the equality of light and darkness, but somewhere deep inside we’ll still be thankful that the days will be growing longer until there is more light than dark. We just don’t have to say so at the office. Holidays, it seems to me, offer us hope. We don’t have to buy stuff or give presents. Just having a day to stop and reflect makes us more human. The vernal equinox came silently on a Sunday this year. I awoke early to try to catch sunrise on a cloudy morning. I look to the east, and I dare to hope.

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Palms and Psalms

At Nashotah House, where I spent many years of my career, it was often felt that the weather during Holy Week was, in the best of circumstances, appropriate. With spring just around the corner, however—the date of Easter is based on the Vernal Equinox, after all—a number of surprises came. Particularly in Wisconsin. The ideal scenario would look something like this: sunny then partly cloudy on Palm Sunday; it was a a joyful day for a parade, but clouds make for nice foreshadowing. Nobody really commented on the weather for Monday through Wednesday, and Thursday—Maundy Thursday—was largely spent inside the chapel. Good Friday, however, should be rainy. Saturday gloomy. And, of course, Easter Sunday should be a perfect, sunny spring day. It seldom, if ever, worked out that way. The weather is not beholden to liturgical celebrations. The same holds true for New Jersey. At least the snow has been removed from the forecast today, only to come in the night.

It was at Nashotah House that I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Being a lexically driven book, it was never intended to be a commentary on global warming. It should have been, in retrospect. Already by then we were nearing the point at which, even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped, runaway melting of the polar ice would continue apace and the weather would grow more and more unpredictable because of human action. Human action of everyone except the industrialists, of course, since they don’t believe in global warming. We cling to our palms and shout “Hallelujah” while the sea level’s rising and our weather grows increasingly erratic. We have a theology with which the weather disagrees.

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The liturgical year is, like its Jewish predecessor, cyclical. Some have suggested that holidays were invented to remind the laity of when it was safe to plant again. Of course, the climate in the “Middle East” is quite different than that of northern Europe and the United States where the Bible seems to have its proper setting. As I was walking yesterday, I enjoyed the daffodils that I always associate with Easter. When I returned home I saw snow in the forecast. Leap year, Daylight Saving Time, and my general level of sleepiness conspired to cause me to overlook that today is the Vernal Equinox. I look for the snow, grasp my palm, and think of spring.

Holiday Fervor

AmericaFavHoliTime comes in different varieties. In temperate regions where the changing seasons keep the time of year for us, we tend to have seasonal holidays. Christmas and other December holidays mark the shortest days of the year with the hope that light will soon become more abundant. Spring rituals, near the time of the vernal equinox, encourage the return of fertility to the earth. Autumnal holidays mark the approach of darkness once again as the world twirls endlessly on. Summer, bright and warm, doesn’t really lend itself to so many holidays. These thoughts came back to me as I read Bruce David Forbes’s America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Forbes doesn’t cover all the special days, but focuses on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. These are five holidays marked, in some sense, by spending. They are often, although Forbes doesn’t really spend too much time on it, the focal point of cultural wars where various Christian groups wish to reclaim a certain day for its “rightful heritage.”

One of the real values of books like America’s Favorite Holidays is that it is clear that these claims of “keeping Christ in Christmas” and its kin are samples of collective amnesia. Many “Christmas” traditions predated Christianity. Others developed concurrent with it, but in “pagan” contexts. Christmas trees, for example, didn’t originate in the latitudes of Bethlehem. The same may be said for just about any holiday. Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving, of the five explored, are the lone exceptions. These are fairly recent holidays and neither one marks a solstice or equinox. They celebrate aspects of life we value, making them sacred time. Don’t expect to get Valentine’s Day off of work, however. Capitalism never makes room for love.

Christmas, of course, is the holiday most under dispute. All holidays may be commercialized, but for Christmas spending is central. Forbes insightfully shows that Christmas is, and may always have been, both a cultural holiday and a religious holiday. The cultural aspect of the season is the one that most people celebrate. The birth of Jesus—which we are fairly certain was not in December—was a latter add-on. A baptism, if you will, of a pre-existing holiday. The winter solstice holiday is a staple of cultures in climes where the difference in available light and warmth is appreciable. It marks the point of the year when things start getting better. Yes, the real cold of winter has not yet set in, and there will be months of snow and ice. Still, once the solstice is passed, there is more light to help us cope. Celebrating sacred time, whether secular or not, is the natural reaction of people who crave light over darkness.